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May 22, 2018

Susan Callahan, Contributing Columnist

Many people, myself included, did not "get" Alexander "Sascha" Zverev.
When he first showed up on the scene three years ago, he appeared
only as a gangly teenager with a piercing gaze.  Sure, he had a good
serve but where was the "it" factor? All tennis greats have an "it"
factor, something that separates them not just from the other humans
on the planet but something that elevates them above the other tennis
players in the Top 10.

For Federer, he has extraordinary, superhuman sight and reflexes and
a granular relationship with the ball unlike any other. For Nadal, it is his
mastery of spin, shapes and his superhuman tenacity and strategic
thinking.  For Djokovic, he has an superhero ability to stretch his body
beyond human limts -- He is Stretcho -- as well as an need for
domination. All great champions have a killer instint.  So what, I asked
myself , was Sascha Zverev's superhuman quality that would lift him
above Nadal and Federer and Djokovic in a match?

I now think I know. Watching Zverev play Nadal in the BNL
Internationali Tennis, his "it" factor became obvious.

Zverev has Djokovic-like quality of playing superhuman defense.  The
thing that makes Djokovic so hard to beat is that he gets to balls that
are hit to the extreme corners of the court, balls that 99% of all other
players can't reach. He is able to reach those balls because he can
stretch his body a good two to three feet beyond the reach of normal

The Number of Balls in Play Increases, the Number of Killer Shots

With this type of superhuman defense, Zverev, like Djokovic, increases
the average length of rallies when he is receiving serve. If you have a
great serve and are accustomed to producing 10% to 20% of them as
aces or unreturnable, you will see these numbers plummet against
Zverev or Djokovic.

There will be few "free points" when you serve. You will have to work
hard for everything. This brings up another advantage. Players grow
accustomed to expending less energy when they are serving than when
they are returning. Djokoiv and Zverev upset that pattern. They make
you work hard when you serve, which means you don't get as much
rest in a set, which means you et worn down sooner.

Depleted of your physical and mental reserves, you become easy prey
for Zverev on his own serve. And that serve is good. At 6 feet 6 inches
tall, he makes good use of his frame. He snaps through the ball. He
averages 8.1 aces per match, just behind Juan Martin del Potro who
averages 8.2.

Zverev Has Room to Improve

Hi serve is not dominant -- yet. The ATP leader in average aces per
match is Ivo Karlovic at 21.3, with John Isner, 6 foot 11 inch American
coming in at second with 19.3. Federer averages 9.3 aces, making his
serve much more dominant than Zverev.

Rafael Nadal averages only 3.4 aces per match, much less dominant
than Zverev, which partly explains why he had such a tough match
against Zverev in Rome.  Zverev will have a harder time making an
impression at Wimbledon unless his serve improves.

At age 36 for Federer and 31 for Nadal, these players are finished
products. But Zverev is only 21, a full decade to a decade and a half
younger than his rivals and he has lots of room to improve.  Federer
and Nadal are still ranked Numbers One and Two ( or Two and One)
depending on the week, while Zverev is ranked Number Three. My bet
is that he will soon overtake them as Number One.
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Zverev is a future Number One.